Syracuse’s Armory Square: Urban Done Right

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On a pleasant, sunny day late last summer, I stepped out of my car and straightened my tie as I eyed the Courtyard By Marriott Syracuse Hotel across Fayette Street.  I looked down at my watch and saw that I had about 20 minutes to kill before I started photographing the wedding I had that day, so I took a little stroll East and stumbled upon an urban pathway, The Onondaga Creekwalk.  As a sucker for this kind of thing, I took note of where I was so that I might come back an and explore when I had more time.  As I made my way over to the hotel, I gazed westward and saw what looked to be a bustling city neighborhood.  Little did I know it was a place that would leave me in awe just 8 months later.

Full disclosure, Rochestarians like me don’t typically have much to say about Syracuse… and I’m sure the opposite is often true.  So when readers of The Urban Phoenix started telling me I have to check out Armory Square, I was curious and skeptical at the same time.

Little did I know that when I planned to explore this area for a few hours last Friday, I would realize I had made a grave miscalculation… Armory Square was so vibrant, so walkable with so many restaurants, bars and stores I really needed at least a full day to appreciate just how amazing this place was.

As you read about my experience in this bulging Syracuse neighborhood, know that I will revisit soon for a much more detailed exploration of the area… but for now, sit back and enjoy a little taste of the tremendously vibrant Armory Square neighborhood, Syracuse, NY.

The Story

I “unfolded” my Dahon folding bicycle on the platform of the Syracuse Amtrak station, wincing as the piercing 15mph wind added bite to the 2o degree air.  Thanks to a very late train, I had all of four hours to bike to Armory Square, see as much of it as I could, then head back to catch another train home to Rochester.

“That’ll be easy,” I arrogantly thought to myself.  While I had heard some rumblings of good things happening in downtown Syracuse, and my virtual tour on Google Maps confirmed this, I still anticipated the Armory Square neighborhood to be a place I could swing by and take in within a few hours.


First, there was getting there.  For those who might be reading The Urban Phoenix for the first time, I don’t drive much.  Cycling and trains are how I get around, so I began my journey by biking around the Destiny USA Mall to the entrance of the Onondaga Creekwalk.  While the photos don’t do it justice on this blisteringly cold March day, I immediately realized this is one of the best urban trails in Upstate New York.DSC08169DSC08177DSC08182Paved, wide and inviting, the trail weaved from the mall down to the Inner Harbor area, which appeared to be rich with construction projects and development.  The Inner Harbor Amphitheater flanked the East side of the trail, a perfect spot for a summer concert.DSC08184DSC08187The whole Inner Harbor looked like the beginning of a modern, beautiful and vibrant destination for residents and visitors alike.DSC08191DSC08192As I continued south on the trail, I began to pass a series of office buildings.  They were so beautifully woven into the landscape, with amenities, walkways and areas that complimented the view of the creek and accessibility to the trail.  Red brick and clean concrete bled into green grass and black metal, creating an appealing tapestry for the eye.DSC08204DSC08206DSC08208DSC08212DSC08214DSC08216A little further south, as if by magic, the trail opened up from a secluded mix of nature and offices to an urban roadside pathway, leading me in to the heart of Armory Square.  Greeting me along the way was the classic art deco Niagara Mohawk Power building, as well as the more modern Harris Beach/MVP Healthcare structure.DSC08220DSC08222DSC08223DSC08224Finally, Franklin Street led me to the middle of Armory Square.  I was completely unprepared for the urban exhibition that unfolded before me… gorgeously re-purposed buildings full of restaurants of all types, bars, independent retail stores, and more.  This was an urban planning junkie’s playground, with narrow streets to slow traffic and improve walkability (a walkability score of 89!), pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and “parklet” space, adding a comforting accent and a place to rest.DSC08230DSC08226DSC08234DSC08245DSC08248DSC08252DSC08253DSC08255DSC08256Suddenly realizing this was a far more vibrant place than I could have ever imagined, even on a painfully cold day.  I quickly locked up my bike and started on foot.DSC08231My first stop was Kitty Hoynes, a true Irish establishment (the owner was actually born in Dublin!) with the distinction of being one of the top Irish Pubs outside of Ireland.  Their Guinness draft quality is so high, they received the Perfect Pint diploma from the storied beer company itself.  I later learned it was featured on Food Network as well!DSC08236DSC08241.jpgI walked in expecting a small lunch crowd at 12:30 in the afternoon, but the place was hopping.  Men and women drinking at the bar, eating food, loud laughter and hilarity… the drinks were flowing and the food was steaming.  The friendly bartender was so busy I couldn’t catch her eye for an interview, but I will certainly return.  I finished my Guinness (best I’ve ever had by the way) and made my way to the next stop.DSC08250In a small park space off of Franklin Street, a National Basketball Association 24-second clock stood high with the trees.  It payed homage to the fact that the shot clock used in professional basketball was invented in Syracuse, and changed the game of basketball for better and forever.

While I decided not to stop in for lack of time, I snapped a picture of the Museum of Science and Technology (MOST), which houses 35,000 square feet of hands-on science and tech learning opportunities geared toward children and families.DSC08247MOST has a strong presence in the Syracuse community, providing an educational and entertainment outlet for families in Armory Square and beyond.  The importance of a facility that caters to families and children in an area known more for it’s adult entertainment cannot be overstated.  Bringing a family element into the heart of a vibrant downtown is a tremendous positive for the area.

Moving on, I headed down beautiful Walton Street and took a set of stairs down to a basement that was Empire Brewing.DSC08271DSC08263MJ was kind enough to talk with me as I sipped on an East Coast Amber Ale.  I asked her if Armory Square was always as vibrant and full of people.DSC08268“It’s always like this, it doesn’t stop,” she responded.  “You should see it in the evening.  It’s been like this for years now, it’s really amazing.”

The delicious beer was matched only by the fun, basement hangout feel of Empire Brewing.  This is a must-visit if you’re in the area.DSC08261DSC08275Now two beers down, I decided to take a break from anything alcoholic and stopped into a few retail establishments.  The corner of Walton and Franklin led me into Ish Guitars, where I was greeted by gorgeous instruments illuminated by abundant sunshine streaming through the large south-facing windows… and by Jesse, the owner.DSC08276DSC08280“We moved into Armory Square two years ago.  It’s amazing, just over the two years we’ve been here it’s changed quite a bit.  The city’s been doing a really good job with everything, a lot of new development, a lot of housing is going in downtown… the housing actually is a really big thing, so [residents] can have all of this so close by.

“This used to be only bars and restaurants down here, but more and more retailers are coming down, and I’m hoping to try to get even more to come so we can make [the neighborhood business scene] a little move diverse.

“Everyone gets along really well, you almost don’t ever have to leave because you’ve got pretty much everything you need here, except for a grocery store,” Jesse said, laughing.

“A lot of people still don’t come downtown a lot.  They say ‘parking is so hard’ but then they go to Destiny USA and park a half mile away when here they can park a block away.  People still have this perception, but that perception is slowly changing.  Now they’re starting to think ‘hey I wanna go hang out, I wanna go somewhere fun, walk around,’ now they can come down here and have more of an experience.  It’s a little bit more interesting.”

Jesse touched on the shift from “mall culture” to what I like to call New Urban Malls, or neighborhoods that provide an enjoyable shopping, entertainment and dining experience with a fresh, local feel that departs from the “big box” mall model.  Today’s young professionals are increasingly wooed by vibrant urban areas rather than the typical suburban shopping and dining experience.

I thanked Jesse for his time and stepped next door to Midnight Sun, a women’s store with a great style.DSC08287

I spoke with Danielle, who told me a bit about the store and the community

DSC08285“We have a location in Oswego that’s been open for about 30 years, so this store is fairly new, about 3 years old.  I think we have a good feel about what people like.  But so often we have people come in here and maybe don’t know how to put one of our outfits together.  I met a girl yesterday who came in from the South of France.  She had an event to go to at night, and she really liked our style, so I got to dress her and when she came out, she was grinning ear to ear.  She was so happy with how she looked, and for me, at the same time I got to talk with someone from France which is cool… and it’s gratifying to have someone come in and when they walk out feel like a million bucks and feel excited to go out there.

“We keep it very personal here, and I think that’s what people like when they come in.  I’ve often heard that we carry a very peaceful, fun, calming atmosphere, and people really need that.   People will come down here, know us here from the store and just hang out.  Then they bring other people in, which helps our business too.

“Armory Square is on fire right now.  I think we are on the verge of a very big boom right here… the music scene, arts scene, the energy here and the people, the desire to do things, it’s incredible.  All of these local businesses and all of these young people are doing amazing things for this community.  We want to clean it up, get the music and art down here, get people collaborating… and it’s happening.  We share a vision somehow, the desire for more.”

I asked Danielle why she thought young(er) people are taking their cities back, choosing urban living over the traditional suburban communities at a greater rate… Her answer was kind of awesome.

“We’re bored,” she said.  “Things are changing and we’re not afraid to do something different and live outside the box.  We want more and we’re making it happen.”

As I left Midnight Sun, an overwhelming feeling of hunger came over me.  I crossed the street and headed half a block north to Pastabilities, a cafeteria-style restaurant that was a pasta lover’s dream.  DSC08296I asked the gentleman behind the counter what he recommended.

“You like heat?  Spicy?”

“Hell yes,” I answered.

“You gotta go with the chicken riggie pasta,” he said.

As a huge fan of Utica, birthplace of riggies, his recommendation could not have been more perfect.  And when he said heat he wasn’t kidding.  I had the most amazing pasta that left my bald head with beads of sweat.  Pastabilities is nothing short of incredible.DSC08293After lunch, I popped into the Mr. Shop, a fabulous men’s clothing store, and talked to the owner for a bit before heading to my final destination of the day, Funk ‘n Waffles.  The name pretty much sums it up.DSC08307Funky art and the delicious smell of waffles blended with a sort of “come as you are” atmosphere.  Though I was completely full from my late lunch, I had to try something, but first I spoke with Craig and Craig.  No joke.DSC08301“It’s very historic here.  This building alone has been here for about 200 years.  [Armory Square] is just a great spot to come and check out different foods, different cultures, and there are beers from all over the world here.  During the summer there are all kinds of festivals, there’s just a lot to do.”

The other Craig spoke up.  “Even in the winter, we just got done with the Wing Walk, where people buy tickets and they can go to different spots, grab a few wings and move on.  They have awards for best wings, best Bloody Marys… seems like every other week or so there’s a festival going on, even in the winter.”

Back to Craig one.  “A lot of the enthusiasm is for the food and the music scene in this city.  I don’t think you see that in a lot of other cities.  And actually, the gentleman over there, Mike Heagerty, he’s Mr. Syracuse, he knows everything about this town.  He spearheads a lot of the stuff downtown.”

The Craigs pointed out Mike Heagerty sitting in the other room… which I was very excited about because no fewer than 6 different people I had talked to that day had told me he was the guy to speak to in Syracuse.  He was working with some other people so I didn’t want to disturb him… but I did sit and find room in my stomach for the most delicious breakfast sandwich flanked by waffle buns, of course.DSC08309As I was packing up to leave, Mike Heagerty popped around the corner.  By chance, the guy everyone told me I had to talk to was right in front of me.DSC08311“I didn’t grow up in Syracuse.  I started living here full time a little over ten years ago.  I always had family here, so it was sort of a home away from home.  But I really became interested in the history and the culture of the area, so I proceeded to find ways to promote local businesses and artists and collaborate consistently, out there in the public.  I wanted to be known as a person who follows through and makes fun things happen.

“As I progressed from working for the Alternative News Weekly to non-profits, to being the communications director of Syracuse Opera, just finding my way to make my own adventures along the way, side projects with a collective of artists, you name it… I’ve always had a big dream for wanting more things to occur here in Syracuse.

“Yeah, Mr. Syracuse, I guess I forgot my sash,” Mike joked.  “It’s a funny thing because of course I didn’t ask for that nickname but it’s always nice to be able to connect people and help people really pursue meaningful ways of doing things around here.

“I want to bring people to Syracuse, so I’m always thinking about tourism and prepping the area for that… that means promotion, contact contact contact, telling the tales of the city besides the history and the culture… these all help us move toward a not-so-distant goal of being able to have unique experiences that other places don’t have.”

In every urban revival, there is at least one Mike.  Every city seems to have someone that everyone points to and says “that’s the person who’s doing it.”  What Mike and other effective community citizen-leaders all do best is just what he said… get people from similar and different walks of life talking, communicating and collaborating.  It’s not so much the brick-and-mortar part of the rebuild, rather it’s the knowledge that someone from over here might be able to help this other person over there, and so on.  People like Mike are the conduits, the connectors that allow change to flow smoothly, and simultaneously promote and popularize everything that’s happening.

Energized by my short visit, it was time to quickly hop on my bike and head back to the Syracuse Station.  But I left with a newfound love and appreciation for Armory Square in Syracuse.  If you’re reading this and find yourself saying “oh he didn’t visit (fill in the blank),” don’t worry, I plan to spend more time writing about this vibrant neighborhood in the very near future.  Consider this a teaser, a testament to my excitement over Armory Square, one of my new favorite urban gems.  Beautiful job Syracuse, I’ll see you again very very soon.DSC08300.jpg

Arian Horbovetz is the owner and operator of ArianDavidPhotography in Rochester New York.  Arian began The Urban Phoenix in January of 2015, telling the stories of urban rebirth happening in our small Upstate New York cities and neighborhoods.  With over a quarter million views, The UP has become a voice for those in New York who are excited about the future of their urban areas.